Keeping the Home Fires Burning

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:58:00 AM

What’s to become of us? After a brief halcyon period in which concerned Americans were allowed to believe that Barack Obama was a smart guy who had all the answers, reality set in. His economic recovery plan, colloquially known as the bailout, seems to have prevented total collapse, but it’s left a bad taste behind with those who are well aware that, as usual, most big finance players are making out like bandits. Employment recovery lags, as it always does. 

Healthcare is….well, where exactly is healthcare going? An inadequate prescription is working its way slowly through a heavily lobbied, poorly informed and recalcitrant congress, but at least it’s still alive.  

For Californians, the total collapse of our educational system is apparent wherever you look. The once-mighty University of California is rapidly being transformed into an outpost of corporate R&D: research and development, with “research” only in quotes, as pure science is neglected in favor of emphasis on developing lucrative commercial products, particularly those which can be given a bit of greenwashing. 

And don’t ask about the humanities. Even academics in relatively well-funded science and engineering departments have started to express their concern that their students seem to be more and more illiterate, though not yet innumerate. When technical studies are not leavened by a fundamental grounding in broad-based subjects like history and literature, future researchers are prone to make ill-informed choices about what work they’re doing and why.  

If by some miracle UC manages to continue to deliver a good, well-rounded education to its students, they will increasingly be drawn from a restricted pool as tuition costs skyrocket. The greatness of the University of California has been based on its diversity, now at risk because the citizens of the state of California seem to have decided that education is no longer a public mission, just a luxury for the well-off.  

And it’s not only the big U, it’s also the hardworking California State Universities and the community colleges which are suffering. Students who come to them from high school are less and less prepared to undertake college studies because of the increasing impoverishment of the California public school system. These institutions have traditionally carved out special missions for themselves which served their local areas, and that’s becoming harder and harder as they too suffer funding cutbacks.  

Case in point: on Monday morning jazz star Kim Nalley, a world-class singer, sent out an e-mail to her list saying that “as you might know from the televised strikes at UC Berkeley, the California budget crisis has cut funding to colleges and universities. KCSM is a part of the College of San Mateo and has been hit hard. So we are having an old-fashioned rent party to raise funds!” She was pitching a benefit that night at Yoshi’s to raise money to keep the station afloat. 

KCSM has worked for more than 40 years to keep jazz, America’s most important contribution to serious music, thriving. Since the demise of KJAZ, it’s the only station in the Bay Area with a 24-hour jazz format, and one of the 35 most-listened-to non-profit stations in the country.  

Monday’s show at Yoshi’s was an impressive gathering of the Bay Area’s top jazz talent, many participants with national reputations and all contributing their services for free. As a grandmother myself, I was partial to Kim’s tearjerker duet on Silent Night with her own grandmother, but the whole evening was amazing.  

Looking around the room, I was struck by how much of what went on that night was linked to California education programs now under attack. Kim herself is a proud graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in history who often does historically informed shows like her recent tribute to Billie Holiday.  

Richard Hadlock was introduced from the audience, a wondrous clarinetist and KCSM broadcaster, who also happens to have been my daughter Eliza’s kindergarten teacher at John Muir School in Berkeley—and she’s now a professional musician and a teacher herself. Onstage in an all-star big band with Lavay Wilson was Howard Wiley, who played his sax for Eliza’s production of The Wiz when she taught at Berkeley High and he was a student in their world-famous jazz program. That’s a three-generation transfer of the baton right there, enabled by educational institutions doing their job of preserving the culture. 

The evening’s pleasure was a temporary antidote to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan, a real downer. Bob Herbert nailed it in a New York Times column headed as “A Tragic Mistake”: “The United States is broken—school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding—yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.” Online comments on the column show that many Obama supporters are sad and disillusioned by the president’s decision to continue what seems like an impossible and insanely expensive enterprise. 

The particularly precipitous decline of education in California is partly our own fault because we refuse to tax ourselves adequately, but it’s also affected by the state of the national economy. Obama’s decision to embark on yet another round of pouring money into the bottomless pit of an unwinnable war is sure to make things worse here. We’ll have to figure out what to do about it—I fear rent parties are not going to pay all the bills. 



While we’re on the subject of benefit performances, however, we’re delighted to report that a coalition of community groups spearheaded by Artists for Change has offered to host a fundraiser for the benefit of the Berkeley Daily Planet. It will be at Oakland’s historic Liguri Club, more recently The Omni and now a private home, on Sunday, Jan. 24. The Dynamic Miss Faye Carroll and Kito Gamble (another teacher and another Berkeley High graduate) will be the headliners. Save the date; more information to come. If you or your organization would like to join the list of sponsors, e-mail broklcrofts@earthlink.net, or call 655-3841.